O. R. Tambo Interviewed by Anthony Heard, October 1985

HEARD: The ANC is officially portrayed in South Africa as a communist, terrorist-type organisation, almost presented to the public as demons. Now, since the public have no access to your views, how would you answer this, particularly the charge of being a communist-controlled organisation?

TAMBO: It is important to observe that this has been a persistent portrayal of the ANC by many people who are opposed to us. But the ANC is as ANC as it ever was. It is true that the ANC has members of the Communist Party who are members of the ANC. That has been the case almost since time immemorial. The ANC was established in 1912 and the South African Communist Party in 1921, and so there has been an overlapping of membership all along the line. But ANC members who are also members of the SACP make a very clear distinction between these two independent bodies. We cooperate a lot but the ANC is accepted by the SACP as leading the struggle. There is absolute loyalty to that position. It is often suggested that the ANC is controlled by the Communist Party... by communists. Well, I have been long enough in the ANC to know that has never been true.

The Communist Party has its positions and the ANC has its positions. The ANC is guided in its policy and all its members are loyal to the Freedom Charter, and that is where you find all the positions of the ANC. They are reflected in the Freedom Charter. We don't depart from the Freedom Charter. So there is no problem of the ANC being controlled. Now this is also extended to control by the Soviet Union; much of this is propaganda. We go to the Soviet Union as we go to Sweden and to Holland and to Italy to ask for assistance in one form or another. And in all these countries we do get assistance, and assistance is given quite unconditionally. The Western countries, who do support us and we very much appreciate the assistance they give us, do not give us weapons of course, because they generally do not approve and their laws do not allow it. But in the socialist countries we get the weapons, so we go there to get what we can't get elsewhere. And that's all there is in it.

HEARD: Are you getting more support from the West now?

TAMBO: We are getting a great deal of support from the West, increasing support, in material terms, too; that support is growing.

HEARD: So the charge that you are a communist organisation, you would reject strongly?

TAMBO: We would reject that. We would say that there is a Communist Party. So we are fortunate because if one is looking for a Communist Party it is there, but the ANC is not the Communist Party.

Now, the other aspect of being terrorists: Again, there is a lot of exaggeration about this terrorism. Long before we had injured a soul, when we were very careful in our sabotage actions to avoid hurting anybody, and that is what we have been doing for the better part of 20 years now... even when we started, this was called terrorism. We knew what terrorism was and we thought that the people of South Africa are being misled about what terrorism was. We could have been terrorists if we had wanted to, but we chose not to be. So even that has been an exaggeration. It is true that more recently, as for instance in May 1983 when a bomb exploded and others were attempted, this was stepping up things. It is proper to recognise that this was after 20 years at it. We started in 1961 and 20 years later you get a bomb exploding. We could have done this much, much earlier on numerous occasions. We did not want to be seen as terrorists; we are trying to put on pressure. And we have been notoriously restrained in our armed actions - notoriously.

HEARD: What future do you see for whites in future South Africa?

TAMBO: The ANC, and all of us in the ANC, have always considered and accepted that whites like ourselves belong to our country. They are compatriots, fellow-citizens. We took the earliest opportunity to dispel the notion that we were fighting to drive the whites out to somewhere and we made it clear that they belong to South Africa. They had their role to play as we would like to think we had a role to play although we are excluded. And so this has been basic. We have asked whites to join us in the struggle to get rid of the tensions that come with the apartheid system. We have hoped that we could together build the future nonracial South Africa, and by nonracial we really do mean nonracial. We mean a society in which each one feels he or she belongs together with everybody else, where the fact of race and colour is of no consequence, where people serve according to their abilities and their skills, where we together work to unite our people, and we have adopted policies which discouraged the polarisation of our people either into ethnic groups or into white versus black.

HEARD: And do you distinguish between any particular white group?

TAMBO: No, no. Our Charter says that South Africa belongs to all who live in it and we say that people who have chosen South Africa as their home are welcome there. There is plenty of room for them, and we should accept them as South Africans and they in turn should accept us as South Africans. This is the kind of society that we are hoping will emerge.

HEARD: Is there any reassurance or assurance that you could give whites about their physical safety, their jobs and their home security under an ANC-led government? How would you address the question of their insecurity, which is manifest at the moment?

TAMBO: What we would hope our white compatriots will learn to understand is that we don't really see them as whites in the first instance. They are as good as black. In fact, let us say, they are Africans. We see them as Africans. We are all born there in that country, or most of us are. We live on this continent. It is our country. Let's move away from these distinctions of Europeans and non-Europeans, whites and non-whites.

HEARD: So, it is security for all, as it were?

TAMBO: It is. It is security for all, and it would be in the interests of all of us that everybody feels secure. Everybody's property is secure; everyone's home is secure. The culture is secure. We believe our cultures will begin to merge. We have got a rich variety which, when it comes together, is really going to be something we can put out to the world. So all this would be respected. There would be room for it all. But the main thing is, and the sooner we begin to grapple with this problem the better, not to proceed on the basis that the Africans are going to do something to the non-Africans, but to begin on the basis that we all belong to that country. Let us not look at one another's colour. Let us not address that. Let us see one another merely as fellow-citizens.

HEARD: How do you view the business leaders, the PFP, the dominees who have been seeking talks with the ANC? How do you feel about this?

TAMBO: We feel very good indeed because, you see, in the fifties when we were a legal organisation we were getting across very effectively to the white community. The ANC was getting accepted and its objectives were getting generally accepted among the whites. We were uniting the country where apartheid separated it. Now this is because we had access.

I recall Chief Albert Luthuli (the late ANC leader) going to Cape Town... And do you remember the effect he had, the impact he made. Well, when he came back to Johannesburg from that trip, there were thousands of white people at Park Station, thousands who came to meet him as a result of the impact he had made. So this is the kind of situation that had developed. Then we got banned and this contact was broken. And now the white community has been brought up to regard the ANC as something very, very dangerous. The one effect of this visit by the business people has been to open the lines of communication because I am sure they saw us as something very different from the way we had been projected all the times, and I think they said as much.

HEARD: Are you keeping in touch?

TAMBO: We do keep in touch. And then we next looked forward to the visit of the young people. We thought what a good thing that they should get together and begin to look at their future together. This was a very good thing. And the contribution is not one-sided. It is not as if we are giving or receiving all the time. I think we are enriching one another with views about what should be done with our situation. We had hoped to see the ministers of religion who wanted to come. We thought that was another opportunity. Then of course the PFP [Progressive Federal Party] came along and we had very good exchanges with them. All this is much-needed communication, especially at this time because at some point we have got to agree on what to do about our own future.

HEARD: Could you briefly set out your economic theory, particularly on questions like nationalisation and wealth redistribution?

TAMBO: I don't know if I would call it a theory. It appears in our Charter and all we do is to interpret what the Charter says. We have not attempted to depart from that in any way. We start with what the Charter says and broadly the interpretation is that the State would control some of the industries, solely with a view to ensuring an equitable distribution of the wealth that we have and I think that this was at the back of the minds of the people who drew up the Charter, and it was more than the ANC. We said our country is poverty-stricken as far as the blacks are concerned, and by blacks I mean Coloureds and everybody else. They are very poor. Even the whites are not really wealthy but the wealth is contained in the hands of a few. And we look at the country: 13 percent overcrowded by millions of landless people who are starving and dying.

What do you do about this? Where do you get the land from to give them? You have got to address that question. You have got to say how to end this poverty, how do we handle the wealth we produce in such a way that we can relieve some of those problems. The solution we saw was one of nationalisation, and, of course, when we meet the business people they say that nationalisation will destroy the South African economy.

HEARD: Do they accept some measure of redistribution?

TAMBO: They seemed to. Yes they do. They accept some measure of redistribution. It is the method, the mechanism, how to achieve it - this is of course where we did not agree and could not agree. But they accepted, they understood, what we were trying to get at: That you cannot have a new South Africa which does not address this problem.

HEARD: What about private property; how far would nationalisation extend, as you see it?

TAMBO: It would be a mixed economy. And certainly nationalisation would take into account the situation as we find it at the time - the realities of the situation in which we find ourselves. But there would be private ownership, that would all be geared to the situation that obtains at the time. Also, we don't envisage fighting in the streets over it. We think that we will have to approach this from the point of view of what the people want. If the people want one form of distribution above another, well, it must be like that.

HEARD: There would be a debate about the level of nationalisation?

TAMBO: Yes, there would be a debate.

HEARD: What sort of environment could that debate take place in? Would you see free media, free expression, freedom of newspapers?

TAMBO: Absolutely.

HEARD: What about violence? In what circumstances would you as leader of the ANC be prepared to renounce violence and start talks? What are the circumstances that can bring that about because I think that's what, frankly, everyone wants, on all sides, to stop. I am sure that no one wants it to go on forever.

TAMBO: No, not even we. This question of violence worries many people. The unfortunate thing is that the people tend to be worried about the violence that comes from the oppressed. And so the tendency is to want to know, as you want to know, on what terms would we end violence. Really, there would be no violence at all if we did not have the violence of the apartheid system. And even if there was, and there has been for two decades, it has been restrained. But if you look at what comes from the other side, during those two decades there has been massive violence. So we then have to say to ourselves. Of course we can stop our struggle, we can stop even our violent actions, but on that basis what would be the reason for that? And in return for what?

HEARD: Is there a possibility of a truce?

TAMBO: There is always a possibility of a truce. We see the possibility of a truce. It would be very easy, if for example, we started negotiations. We have said that negotiations can start, serious negotiations...

HEARD: With the government?

TAMBO: Yes, with the government when they are ready because at the moment we think they are not ready. And we have said to them that if you wanted negotiations, we would not go into that without Nelson Mandela and the other political leaders and the political prisoners. Now, a serious indication of readiness for negotiations would be the release of all these leaders, because they have got to be part of the process of preparation for serious negotiations which will not just be talks for the sake of talking. It is quite conceivable that in that situation of preparing for negotiations and looking at necessary conditions and so on, this question could arise. But we have had a problem about just saying we are now suspending our struggle, which is what it would mean.

HEARD: On one side, as it were?

TAMBO: On one side, without any indication on the other side of their willingness to do anything about what every one of us knows is their violence. We have said: Lift the state of emergency, pull out the troops from the townships, and the police. And release the political prisoners. We have even said unban the ANC. Do all these things to create a climate.

HEARD: Which you would welcome?

TAMBO: We would welcome a climate of that kind, and if the rest of the leaders were there I think it would be time to get together and put the question: Can we really do anything about this? Everybody would then be there. But we are getting this persistent refusal on the part of Botha either to release Nelson Mandela and the other political prisoners, and we say: What are you going to do with treason trials... it is simply a form of repression. Who are you going to negotiate with, if you want to negotiate. If he withdrew the treason trials and did all these things by way of lifting the pressures that rest on us, we would begin to see that the other sides are ready to talk.

But we have argued that it is not necessary for hostilities to cease before negotiations start. Before the Nkomati accord, there were lengthy negotiations between the South Africans and others before there was any signing of an agreement. The agreement that was signed in Lusaka between the South Africans and the Angolans was preceded by a series of meetings and negotiations.

HEARD: Is anything going on at the moment... i.e., talks about talks between the ANC and the South African Government?

TAMBO: No, nothing at all. Which is why we think that they are not ready to have any talks. They are not even ready for other people to talk to us. We are South Africans. If we meet we can only talk about our country. We are not going to fight about it. We talk about it, and they don't like this. But I think what they do not like is that in meeting we get to understand each other better, and we, the ANC, certainly benefit from these talks, and we would think that those we talk to also benefit. So this is moving in the direction of resolving our problems, but they are not prepared for that.

HEARD: Violence against people, civilians. What is the ANC's attitude on this, bearing in mind the fact that down the years the ANC has in my opinion held back to a great extent on what one might call indiscriminate violence or going for soft targets?

TAMBO: I am glad you have put it that way, because it is often forgotten that we have been at the receiving end all the time, and we have held back. And it is not conceivable that we could go on like that indefinitely without anything changing. But one must see in this holding back the reluctance of the ANC on questions of violence. But when once, of course, we have decided we have got to fight then we must fight.

HEARD: What about soft targets?

TAMBO: The question of soft targets has been exaggerated out of all proportion. As I have once had occasion to observe, when the police go into a township and shoot, when they did on the 21st March, repeating Sharpeville, they were hitting soft targets, and this whole year has been a year of shootings of really soft targets. So people are being killed. It has never been quite like this. But they are being shot and even children are being killed... so when the ANC talks about soft targets this creates an alarm and yet the ANC is going no further than saying that we have got to intensify our struggle if we are in a struggle. If we stop, we stop. But if we are in struggle and we feel the demand of the situation is that we struggle, then we must intensify that struggle. We have held back for too long. Now, if we do intensify we are not going to be choosing carefully to avoid hurting anybody, but we will move into military personnel, police and so on.

HEARD: But you won't go for civilians as such?

TAMBO: No, we will not go for civilians as such. We think that civilians will be hit as they are hit always. They were hit in Zimbabwe...

HEARD: In a crossfire situation?

TAMBO: A crossfire situation, in any war situation.

HEARD: But not cinemas, and super markets and...?

TAMBO: We will not go into cinemas and bars and places like that. We won't do that. But we will certainly be looking for military personnel, police and so on.

HEARD: Why will you hold back, because often in a guerrilla war the limits do get more and more extended? Is it a moral feeling about killing civilians, or what?

TAMBO: Because we are not fighting against people, we are fighting against a system and we can't kill people. Why would we kill them? We cannot even kill whites because we are not fighting whites at all. We are fighting a system.

HEARD: On foreign policy, do you see South Africa as a pro-Western, non-aligned, or as a Soviet-socialist-leaning country? For instance, in the sale of minerals and raw materials - would these be denied to anyone? What about Commonwealth membership? Where do you see South Africa standing in the world?

TAMBO: First of all, non-aligned in terms of East-West, developing trade with all the countries of the world, strengthening trade links, so maintaining the lines of trade for mutual benefit.

HEARD: So the Americans can be sure of getting their needs?

TAMBO: The Americans will be sure to get it, if they are willing to pay for it. We would want to trade with all the countries of the world, in the interests of our own economy.

We would come back to the Commonwealth because the basis for the exclusion of South Africa would have gone. And we will establish very peaceful relations with countries. We will work very closely with the rest of the African continent, and certainly with the countries of southern Africa. We would become members of SADCC or it might be called another name by then, and we could build together a small common market of our own. South Africa would therefore be admitted into this wider economic grouping that we have in southern Africa. And we would be a very influential country in the world.

HEARD: Do you feel this would unleash resources that we have not been able to unleash?

TAMBO: I am certain. I think the economy itself would be stimulated by the energies that would be unleashed, and the prospects of peace and stability. We think the country would be transformed, politically and socially and economically.

HEARD: I presume you favour sanctions. Do you to the point where people lose jobs and the economy suffers seriously?

TAMBO: We think the economy must be put into difficulties because the economy strengthens the regime. It enables them to do all the things that they want to do. This question of losing jobs, for the victims of apartheid it is nothing. To be a victim of apartheid means to be many things above losing a job which you are losing all the time anyway. And the way we look at it is: The more effective the sanctions are, the less the scope and scale of conflict.

HEARD: If there was a new grouping in South African white politics, with liberal Afrikaners who were formerly Nationalists and Progressive Federal Party people like Slabbert(2) forming a new bloc, would you be prepared to deal with them and on what basis?

TAMBO: We have met Van Zyl Slabbert and we hope to meet various leaders of organisations. An organisation that is opposed to the apartheid system we regard as on our side. I don't think that we would refuse contact with such an organisation because we would see it moving in the direction that we are. We do of course encourage our white countrymen to mobilise and make their contribution to changing the apartheid system and on that basis we ought to be able to find a modus operandi with them.

HEARD: You strike me as a somewhat reluctant revolutionary. With what measure of enthusiasm did you turn to accept that there had to be violence? How did you yourself personally respond to this?

TAMBO: I suppose I was angry and frustrated, like we all were and I continued to be angry and frustrated to feel that this system must be fought. But I was a full supporter of the policy of nonviolence because we thought it would bring us the fulfilment of our objective. When that failed then we had to look for an alternative. We found the alternative in combining political and armed actions and it is one of those things that you have to do as there is no alternative. I don't think I am peculiar in this respect. I think that many people in the ANC would be glad if there was no need for violence but the need is there and we have got to go ahead with it, bitter as it is.

It is painful to see anybody being killed, to see children being killed, no matter who kills them. The death of children is a painful thing and you do have to say what brought us to this situation where these things are happening. We naturally feel that it is the system that has made it impossible for us to avoid what we strove to avoid with such resolve when we were first confronted with this violence. But as individuals and certainly as an individual, I don't like violence.

HEARD: You are enjoying great attention in London. To what do you ascribe this?

TAMBO: I think generally, in many parts of the world there is a lot of interest in what is happening in South Africa and people are discussing it. And when a member of the ANC in my position is around, many people want to try and understand where we go from here. What is more the discussion now revolves around the question of what sort of South Africa. In the past there was just denunciation of apartheid and so on but a new interest has emerged, an interest in what takes the place of what we are seeing now and how do we move from the present to something different. This represents real movement forward for us. We have reached the point where people are expecting change and are beginning to reflect what the change involves and this has been part of interest. People want to know, when apartheid goes (because they are sure apartheid is going) what takes its place.

HEARD: To what extent is the current internal unrest in South Africa orchestrated by the ANC and to what extent is it spontaneous?

TAMBO: Both words are not very applicable. There is a great deal of spontaneity in the sense that when you shoot at people they are angered and want to do something in retaliation. You would not say that the ANC is orchestrating all these responses. They are almost natural. So there is an element of spontaneity. But I would not use the word orchestrated. I would say that the ANC has called on our people, and in some cases they are very disciplined about it, in others there are excesses; the ANC has said let us destroy these structures of separation and apartheid. That is where it starts. Now in this process other factors come in. That authorities come in and shoot and the people respond - and you have a situation of escalation which can tend to conceal the true nature of the conflict as being the people resisting the implementation of the apartheid system and preventing it from working. This is the essence.